WAYW: Loglines

This post is part of a series on Writing About Your Writing. Check out more posts here.

A logline is a one to three sentence summary of the main elements of your story told in an emotionally engaging way. Think of it as your ultimate elevator pitch. The term logline is mostly used in the Film/TV industry, but I find it useful for any type of dramatic, narrative storytelling.

Loglines are incredibly useful when you’re trying to market a show, pitch an idea, or apply for grants and awards. The better you can succinctly communicate your story, the easier it is for people to jump on board.

But Loglines can also be useful for you, the writer, to help shape and heighten the arc of your characters and story. Let’s dive in.

There are different formats for how you might construct a logline, and I’ll talk through a few of them. My favorite, though, comes from Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat!

According to Snyder, “The logline is your story’s code, its DNA, the one constant that has to be true. If it’s good, if it has all the earmarks of a winning idea, then it should give you everything you need to guide you in writing the [script].”

So what makes a good logline? There are four essential elements that Snyder lays out.

  1. It’s About a Guy Who…
  2. Inevitable Conflict and Growth
  3. Primal Goal
  4. The Element of Surprise

It’s About a Guy Who…

Excuse the sexist language here. Guy doesn’t mean man, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean a singular human person. What it describes is a relatable protagonist. Again – doesn’t even need to be a person.

WALL-E is about a relatable robot. THE LITTLE MERMAID about a relatable mermaid. You understand.

Your story must be about a person or group of persons who are doing something. It’s not about ideas, it’s not events, it’s not about inactive nouns. You can’t imagine how many people describe their stories like this:

“It’s about the Norman Conquests.”
“It’s about love in the time of cholera.”
“It’s about how trees grow in Brooklyn.”

Any of these things might sound interesting, but they are not loglines to stories. Stories are about somebody doing something.

And this somebody — he/she/it must feel like you and me, in some way. Even Superman is about an orphaned alien with superpowers who must save his new home planet. See that: orphaned alien. That’s relatable. He’s got vulnerability – just like the rest of us!

Inevitable Conflict and Growth

Now that we have a somebody who’s doing something, there’s got to be something else that is challenging her. Unlike the protagonist, this element does not have to be human. There is no required antagonist, only a required antagonistic force. An obstacle. A conflict.

What kind of conflict you ask? The kind that is PERFECTLY suited to oppose your protagonist with the biggest possible impact. It’s gotta hit him where it hurts.

Let me say that another way: your protagonist determines the antagonistic force. Snyder suggests that you express this in the logline with adjectives.

  • HAIRSPRAY – “It’s about a bubbly, plump white girl uses her big opportunity in the spotlight to fight for integration on her favorite TV dance program, despite the efforts of the racist producer – and ex-beauty queen.”
  • HAMILTON – “It’s about a poor, orphaned immigrant writes his way up the social food chain and helps create a new nation in order to secure a legacy for himself and his family.”
  • ONCE – “It’s about two lovelorn songwriters who must overcome their individual losses to come together, create a demo CD, and find the strength to love again.”

Notice how the adjectives describing the protagonist clash perfectly with the antagonistic forces they encounter. A plump white girl vs. a racist beauty queen. A poor immigrant vs. the social food chain and the prospect of a legacy. Two lovelorn songwriters vs. the intimacy of collaboration. This is not an accident. This is how you create an inevitable sense of conflict and growth.

You must craft a conflict that will give your character the biggest chance for growth. As Snyder puts it, “The trick is to create heroes who offer the most conflict in [your] situation, and have the longest way to go emotionally.”

If Tracy Turnblad were thin and beautiful, it would be EASY for her to take on an ex-beauty queen. If Hamilton were a wealthy landowner, it’d be no problem for him to work his way to the top of a new nation. If Guy and Girl were each super okay with opening themselves up to love, they’d have no problem collaborating on a demo CD. It’s almost as if someone planned it that way….

Primal Goal

Your protagonist’s end goal needs to be something that is deeply primal. It must be something that hits on a very emotional, very human level. If you do that, you’ll have something that will engage your audience on a universal level. It will also feel epic.

Snyder again: “Once you’ve got the hero, the motivation for the hero to succeed must be a basic one. It’s because primal urges get our attention. Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, fear of death grab us.”

It’s interesting to me that Snyder uses the word “basic.” It suggests two meanings: fundamental, and simple. These two things often combine to make the best character motivations. When things get to complicated, they can often be “heady” or “cerebral.” Once that happens, you’ve lost the primacy of the urge, and you need to get back to basics.

Let’s look at our examples from above:

  • Tracy Turnblad is fighting for integration – the belief that all humans are equal. The dignity of humanity is a pretty basic feeling for all of us.
  • Hamilton is fighting to create a legacy for his family, i.e. protection of loved ones, and immortality. Most people want to make some mark, if not for themselves, then for their families, so they can be taken care of.
  • The songwriters in Once are fighting for the strength to love again. Love is a deeply primal motivation for nearly every person on this planet. It speaks to our individual sense of self-worth.

Notice that these wants are also in their own way EPIC. They also drive our character to do EPIC things: overturn social norms, create brand new nations, and risk heartbreak (aka DEATH) in order to love again. And in each case here I expressed their action as “fighting for something.” Finding the right emotionally charged action verb is SO important when writing the prose version of your story. Read more about that here.

The Element of Surprise

The element of surprise is the final component of a well-written logline, and one of the most important ones if you’re to tell a good story. There are two ways to think of this, and either one works.

The first way is to incorporate a sort of “twist” in the conclusion of your story. The protagonist fights the antagonistic forces and then something unexpected happens as a result. I’ll use an example from one of my own musicals, The Tavern Keeper’s Daughter:

Two Midwestern kids, each running away from arranged marriages, brave the streets of New York City to find true romance where they meet, fall in love, and return home only to learn that they were arranged to one another.

Our relatable protagonists – two Midwestern kids – are looking for true love (primal urge) and are perfectly suited for the biggest conflict/growth presented by the streets of New York City. But then – surprise! The thing they were running from turned out to be each other. Didn’t see that coming did you?

That element of surprise hooks the audience in. It’s almost like casting a magic spell. When something unexpected happens, our lizard brain can’t help but want to know WHY and HOW. We crave to know the rest of the story.

The other way to incorporate the element of surprise is by using irony. According to Snyder, “The number one thing a good logline must have, the single most important element, is: irony. It hooks your interest.”

Irony is essentially the same thing as a twist, except it’s not about plot it’s about premise. The premise itself has something unexpected in it.

I’ll use Snyder’s example of Pretty Woman:

A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend.

Whoops! Didn’t see that coming. “What could be more unexpected (another way to say “ironic”)?”

Careful, however, that your element of surprise not be arbitrary. It must be directly related to the protagonist and inevitable conflict that you’ve set up.

For example: A telephone repairman, desperate for money, creates a telephone company Ponzi scheme until a piano falls on him.

Unexpected? Sure. Ironic? Not at all.

 Say It Somehow

The true test of whether or not you have a good logline is does it get a reaction from another person. Go up to somebody – anybody, even a stranger – and share your logline. Do they gasp? Do their eyes go wide? Do they let out a chuckle or a laugh?

If all you get is a slightly disinterested “Huh” or worse, a yawn, then you need to go back, tinker with your logline, and try again.

Remember, in the end the point is not to have a great logline, it’s to have a great story. But a logline is a LOT easier to have to rewrite. Rewriting a story could take months. The logline is a great way to see what kind of story you have and to move the elements around until you land on something that passes the market research.

Snyder relates the story of a writer who had the start of a good idea, but no logline. The resulting script required an entire rewrite. So he sat down to finally work on the logline and realized that he had to let go of his preconceived notions of what his story was in order to create a better logline.

“Soon, he started getting better response from people he pitched to, and suddenly, voila! #2 – his story started to change to match the logline and voila! #3 – the story got better! The irony of what he sort of had was brought into better focus. And when it was put into a pithy logline form, the conflicts were brought into sharper focus too. They had to! Or else the logline wouldn’t work. The characters became more distinct, the story became more clearly defined, and the logline ultimately made the actual writing easier.”

Which Comes First, the Logline or the Story?

If you ask Blake Snyder, he will tell you that the logline must – MUST – come first. I don’t necessarily believe that. Here’s why. As you eventually sit down to write, your story will take some organic turns that you can’t foresee. Because these turns are organic, they will be absolutely right for the story. No logline can prescribe these things. You have to do the writing to discover them.

I prefer to use the logline in this way. When I set out to write a story, I think about the necessary elements of a logline (It’s About a Guy Who…, Inevitable Conflict and Growth, Primal Goal, The Element of Surprise) and once I have those in place in my head, I write a draft.

Then, I look at the draft I’ve written and try to write the logline that would go with it. Usually that’s when I start tinkering with finding the right adjective for my protagonist, defining the inevitable conflict/growth, and heightening the sense of irony/surprise. Once I’ve done that, I go in and rewrite based on my newly discovered logline.

It’s also good to know that the overarching function of the elements of a good log line are useful on the micro level, too. Individual scenes should have an inevitable sense of conflict, a primal drive, and perhaps even surprise, too. They don’t require loglines, per se, but the lessons you learn in writing loglines will come in handy in other places.

Other Logline Structures

I want to end by sharing two other versions of how to structure loglines that I think are also useful. Seeing these different types next to one another helps to further clarify the essential elements that all loglines are aiming for.

The first comes from Ellen Sandler’s book The TV Writer’s Workbook. Here she calls it the Premise Line. The basic elements of a Premise Line are:

  1. Setup of a conflict
  2. Turning point in the conflict
  3. Confrontation or consequence as a result of the conflict.

She offers this one-sentence template to help you block out the basics:

When (something happens), the Central Character (does something), which involves (other regular character) and then (something unexpected happens) because of it.

“When something happens, that’s your setup; when the lead character does something that involves another regular character and implies a conflict, that’s your turning point; and when something happens because of it, that’s your confrontation/consequence.

Notice a few common elements here. She focuses on the conflict of the scene and its connection to the action taken by the Central Character. That gives it a sense of inevitability. Then the result of the conflict is something unexpected. Surprise!

A longtime writer for Everybody Loves Raymond, Sandler offers this real life example:

[The setup:] When the house needs fumigating, [the turning point with implied conflict:] Ray and Debra and the kids move in to Marie and Frank’s house which [the confrontation/consequence] gives Ray and Debra the chance to show Marie and Frank what it’s like to have intrusive family members in your home.”

Another even simpler structure for a logline comes from radio/podcast producer Alex Blumberg in the book Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel.

He sets up his stories like this:

It’s a story about X, and it’s interesting because Y.

I can’t tell you how much this framing device works for figuring out a good story. Believe it or not, a lot of people stop after the first part and completely ignore (or think they’ve implied) the second part.

But the second part is where the unexpected/element of surprise/irony comes in. (Hmm, maybe Blake Snyder is right – irony IS the most important part of a good logline.) Simply stopping to think about why your story is interesting will save you a TON of bored audiences/rejection letters down the road.

I’ll give an example of a story we all know well.

It’s a story about the most qualified US Presidential candidate ever.

Now you might think that sounds interesting on it’s own, but if you were to say that sentence out loud to most people, they would respond with “Okay…” They want something more. They want to know why they should care about this story. What’s interesting about it??

Let’s try again:

It’s a story about the most qualified US Presidential candidate ever, and it’s interesting because she ends up losing the race to the least qualified candidate ever.

Whoa! Didn’t see that coming. Now this story has everything! A relatable protagonist, an inevitable conflict with her perfect foil, a primal urge (winning – aka survival), and an unexpected outcome. All of that from a two part equation where you solve for X and Y.

Hopefully you have a better understanding of the power, efficiency, and effectiveness of writing a good logline. Practicing this skill is truly one of the best ways to improve your writing overall. It will not only help you whip your already-written stories into shape, it will give you the tools to craft better stories right from the beginning.

What To Do Next:

Take a story you’ve already written and create the logline. Notice where you need to adjust your story in order to make the logline work better.

Alternatively, craft an original logline for a story that you haven’t yet sat down to write.

Once you have your logline for either scenario, share it with family, friends, and especially strangers. Tweak your logline based on the reactions (or lack thereof) that you receive.

Once you’ve got an exciting logline, go back and rewrite your story, or sit down to begin your first draft.

♦ ♦ ♦

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Actor / Writer / Idealist I believe a good story has the power to change the way people feel, think, and act. I'm a storyteller with a passion for changing the world and leaving it better than I found it.

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